Tuesday 25 Oct 2016

Of Exes and Owes
Sjef Frenken

As you've probably gathered by now, my lunches with Jack range in topics from the esoteric to the mundane; from probing questions to trivial answers. In short, we're no different from anyone else. Life is a hodgepodge of the sublime, and the ridiculous.

As we were sitting down with a plate of real or ersatz Manchurian food in front of us, Jack started digging in the pockets of his jacket.

"I want to show you something," he said.

"Like what?" I asked.

"Here," Jack said as he handed me a letter.

I quickly glanced at it. "This is addressed to Martha," I pointed out.

"Gimme that," said Jack, grabbing the letter out of my hand. "That's my alimony cheque."

I said: "You mean to tell me that you send her a cheque every month? Why not have it transferred automatically by the bank?"

"Well," said Jack, "I want to keep reminding her every month that the money is coming from me."

I said "I think that's not only inefficient, but a little childish as well, if you ask me."

"Well, I guess I'm just a little boy at heart," said Jack, still digging away in his pockets. "And besides, I didn't ask you."

"Here it is!" Jack said triumphantly as he excavated a postcard. "From Grace," he said. Grace is Jack's daughter, who lives with her mother, Jack's former wife Martha, in Winnipeg.

"Wow," I said, "a postcard from Winnipeg!"

"No," said Jack, "it's from Thailand. Grace is taking some kind of course there."

"What does she write" I asked.

Jack read: "Dear Dad, I'm here for a course in international aid and development. It's in a school about ten miles from Bangkok, where we go on weekends. And guess what: not a flake of snow anywhere! I ask myself, why do I put up with Winnipeg in winter. I'm getting spoiled. Wish you were here -- in brackets she adds: I'm not sure about that, Ha ha. XXOO, Grace' she writes. XO - that means hugs and kisses."

I said "that's a nice message. But, in the interests of accepted etiquette, I should point out that X and O stand for kisses and hugs, respectively."

"No they don't," said Jack. " The X stands for the two arms you hold around the other person, they cross behind that person's back. The O stands for the circle your mouth makes when it kisses. So there."

"Au contraire, my friend" I said. The X stands for the little explosion a kiss makes, and the O stands for the way your arms make a circle when you embrace a person. Clear as a bell!"

I won't describe the further efforts each of us made to persuade the other to accept his point of view. Finally I suggested we agree to disagree. This found no acceptance with Jack. He suggested instead that we poll the people around us in the food court.

Jack can be quite aggressive once he's firmly settled in the saddle of his hobby-horse and ventures out on his quest: the people at the first table he approached agreed with him. The next group agreed with me. Jack tried to convince them of the correctness of his interpretation, and became more and more voluble and argumentative.

Things developed from there. The discussion got louder and louder. It wasn't long before I espied two security guards coming out of the elevator and heading toward us.

I got up, grabbed the letter on the table, tool hold of Jack's arm and dragged him toward the door to the outside. We got out just in time. The cold wind didn't prevent Jack from continuing to argue.

I said "Jack, let's go warm up my car and see whether we can arrive at a compromise, or maybe an alternative we can use, and maybe other people will follow."

We got into my car and started the engine.

Jack said "What do you have in mind?"

I said: "of course we could use the capital letters H and K for hugs and kisses, but that's pretty pedestrian. We could use those as back-up. But let's go through the alphabet and see what could be a bit more poetic."

I could tell Jack was having a hard time letting go of the cause he had espoused; on the other hand, he must have realized that neither he nor I would ever obtain a clear and conclusive victory."

I took out the little notebook I keep in the car for just such emergencies, and started to write the letters of the alphabet in capital letters.

A, B, C and D. Nothing came to mind. Then E, F, G, H and I. Nothing. J, K, L, M, N, O, P.

At Q, Jack said: "Hey look at the letter Q -- it starts with a 'k'-sound, and it looks like a mouth. The little hangey-down part can represent the sound a kiss makes, or the tongue if the exchange is of a more passionate nature."

"Good point," I had to admit.

R, S, T, U, V, W ....

Again Jack had a brainstorm: "The W looks like someone holding out his arms. That could be the symbol for hugs."

"Well," I said, "we've run out of letters: X is out of bounds, and Y and Z don't offer much by way of usable symbolism."

"OK," Jack said, at last. "Let's go with the W and Q, and see what happens."

We left it at that.

"O shit" said Jack, looking back at the security guards who were now frowning at us from the other side of the door some distance away, clearly waiting for us to drive off the parking lot. "I forgot Martha's alimony cheque."

I showed Jack the letter I had picked up on the way out.

He said: "I can't go inside now to mail it. Can you do it for me?" The post office in the mall is about the only one close to Jack's home.

I couldn't be sure the guards knew that I hadn't participated in the small contretemps in the food court. So I told Jack I'd drop off the envelope on my way home.

As I said, our conversations are rarely of an Aristotelian calibre. On the other hand I don't think they've ever descended to the level of argumentation sometimes heard in the House of Commons.

Thank God for small mercies.

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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